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Dear stores, What about the boys?


Dear Gap,

I’d like to take a minute to introduce you to my son. He’s a bright 11-year-old who wants to go to MIT when he grows up. He plays guitar and piano. He has a kind heart and sometimes gives up his birthday presents in lieu of dog and cat food for our local animal shelter.

This year, when we were school shopping at your store, he said something that made me want to write to you. After much shrugging and dragging his feet, he picked a few things out to buy. This is not usual behavior for my son. He enjoys buying things whether they are clothes, a remote helicopter, or a new graphic novel.

But when we finally reached the cashier, my son quietly said to me, “I guess boys are insignificant.”

I thought I misheard him and bought the clothes, but then he enlightened me: He nodded towards the girls’ side of the store. I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t even noticed the advertisements. Three large prints of beautiful young girls were advertised as future engineers, athletes, and musicians. I explained to my son that Gap is trying to encourage girls; they are trying to make girls feel like they can do anything. In essence, Gap is trying to empower the women of the future.

Then he motioned to the boys’ side of the store. There was one advertisement of a boy in Gap clothing. His future was not projected. And, frankly, there were very few clothes for him to choose from.

[Beyond boy and girl aisles: How funneling kids into a category can hurt]

Here is where I admit that school shopping has an extra weight for us. His father passed away last year of pancreatic cancer before school started. So shopping for clothes this time of year doesn’t bring the joy it does for so many families. But that means if there’s something that will sting, it will sting even more. And because of his new history, I want him to believe even more that boys are strong and good and powerful enough for a store to represent them as well as girls.

I had to figure out how to explain to him that he, too, matters.

On the way to the car, my son and I talked about the Pendulum Theory. We talked about how our education system failed girls for generations and how society often believes in order to build one up, it has to strip the other down. Girls have been pigeonholed in a way that boys haven’t been, and so now it’s like some people and retailers are trying to make up for lost time.

[Are you holding your own daughter back? Here are 5 ways to raise girls to be leaders]

My son understood the theory; he understood life isn’t always fair. And he even understood that sometimes people are ignorant or they don’t think about the whole picture. But he also knows that sometimes people just don’t care, and some just want to appeal to the masses and follow current trends.

Please don’t get me wrong, my son and I want girls to be empowered, but I want my son to be empowered too. He says it doesn’t matter; that it’s “okay,” but it’s not.

I would suspect your company is going to be around for another 40 years, and if your advertising department is no different than everything else in human history, the pendulum is going to swing again. Where will you be then? Will you be encouraging our boys to find their power? Will you leave our girls behind? Or will you stop the pendulum from swinging and allow it to rest in the middle?

You and companies like you have so much power. With a single photo, you alone can impact an entire generation of not just girls, but boys too. Imagine if you lead the way to help all children understand no matter their gender, a world can be created where equality is attainable.

Emily Swartz is a freelance writer.

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